FirstNetRivada Networks and U.S. Cellular are the latest companies to challenge AT&T’s progress in gaining agreements to build a nationwide mobile broadband public safety network known as FirstNet. Just a few weeks after Verizon said it would build a core public safety network core in competition with one planned by AT&T, Rivada and U.S. Cellular said today that they have submitted a public safety network plan for the state of New Hampshire that might be implemented should the governor decide to opt out of FirstNet plans from AT&T.

Rivada Networks is a designer, integrator and operator of wireless networks that has a patented technology that, according to today’s press release, creates “more efficient utilization of LTE networks.” U.S. Cellular is virtually the only remaining regional wireless network operator in the U.S. and the fifth largest wireless carrier in the U.S.

Choosing to Opt Out of FirstNet
AT&T earlier this year was awarded a contract to build a nationwide public safety network by FirstNet, the organization put in charge of that network by the U.S. government. But as a FirstNet spokesperson explained in an email to Telecompetitor, individual states must decide whether to opt in or opt out of FirstNet plans submitted by AT&T.

“In an ‘opt out’ scenario, the state assumes all responsibility for deploying, operating and maintaining the radio access network component of the nationwide public safety broadband network in the state in accordance with FirstNet’s network policies, including requirements to interoperate with the FirstNet/AT&T core network,” the spokesperson said. “This ensures the nationwide network remains interoperable for all public safety users.” (story continues below)

As of Friday, 20 states or territories had chosen to have AT&T build and operate their public safety networks and no states had opted out of the AT&T plan.

What would it mean if New Hampshire or another state were to do so?

As part of its FirstNet contract, AT&T was awarded spectrum in the 700 MHz band, known as Band 14, for use on a priority basis by public safety. As the FirstNet spokesperson explained, however, if a state were to opt out (and its alternative plan was approved by the FCC), the state would enter into a spectrum capacity lease with FirstNet in order to use the Band 14 spectrum.

AT&T has touted its ability to use Band 14 spectrum for its own commercial users when that spectrum is not needed by public safety users. But the plan that Rivada Networks and U.S. Cellular have proposed for New Hampshire would differ somewhat.

According to the Rivada/ TDS press release, excess capacity would “be offered for commercial use to support wireless users throughout the state of New Hampshire, including U.S. Cellular customers.”

Asked whether states opting out (or a state’s chosen network operator) would get part of the $6.5 billion allocated by the government for FirstNet, the FirstNet spokesperson said that following FCC review and approval, states opting out would be able to “apply to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for a grant to support construction of the RAN within their state.” The spokesperson added that “The funding for both FirstNet’s deployment and the NTIA grant program statutorily come from the same account (i.e., the network construction fund).”

The $6.5 billion that the government allocated for the public safety network is not intended to cover all costs but merely to supplement operators’ own investment.

Verizon’s public safety network ambitions  — at least those the company has announced — are substantially different from what U.S. Cellular and Rivada Networks are proposing. Verizon has not asked to build out Band 14 spectrum but instead wants to operate a nationwide core network supporting public safety networks in Band 14. As things currently stand, however, AT&T apparently would have no obligation to interoperate with the Verizon core network – and considering that a key goal for the nationwide public safety network is to be interoperable nationwide, that could be a major problem unless the FCC requires AT&T to interconnect its public safety network core with Verizon’s.